December 16, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Vampires of Venice"

It's 8 May 2010 and time for more Doctor Who.

To save Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory's (Arthur Darvill) relationship, the Doctor (Matt Smith) takes them to 16th century Venice. There they immediately stumble upon a secretive academy for teenage girls, that appears to be transforming its students into vampires.

"The Vampires of Venice" boasts a fabulous setting, and thanks to a location shoot in Trogir, Croatia, it actually looks better than pretty much every previous attempt at a historical background. This is a remarkably pretty episode. It also boasts a great set-up for a Doctor Who story: aliens disguised as humans who get mistaken for vampires. Unfortunately this is another all-too-regular case of a concept not having enough time to properly play out to the audience's satisfaction. There's enough promise in Toby Whithouse's script to easily extend to two parts, but with the constraints of 21st century Who, we only get 50 minutes. That's five more minutes than usual, but it still feels uncomfortably cramped and cut short.

The episode begins with the series extricating itself from the knot it tied itself into at the end of "Flesh and Stone": Amy making amorous advances on the Doctor, and the Doctor rushing to fiancée Rory's stag night to try and salvage his and Amy's relationship. The solution? A forced romantic getaway via the TARDIS. It's a pretty clumsy opening, all things considered, and it really lets Amy off the hook in terms of her behaviour towards Rory. Thankfully once in Venice things pick up remarkably.

While he appeared in "The Eleventh Hour", Rory's real introduction appears here. He is one of the most welcome and refreshing companions the series has ever had. Cautious where others would be headstrong, sensible when others would be reckless, he runs around this episode in an understandable nervous fashion. I have an awful lot of time for Rory. It's not just Arthur Darvill's wonderful performance, it's that unlike other companions he really does get freaked out by what he sees around him - but despite this he has the adventures anyway. He's a very relatable and immensely likeable character. Best of all, he's got the Doctor's number within minutes: his ardent need to impress others, and his highly dubious ability to lead those around him into undertaking increasingly dangerous activities by his side.

Rory's also put out that he's essentially surplus to the Doctor and Amy's requirements, and understandably so. As far as Amy's characterisation goes, here she's actually rather horrible - as good as rubbing her adventures with the Doctor in her fiancee's face. By episode's end it has all bounced back into a more enjoyable shape, with Amy and Rory clearly still in love and set to travel with the Doctor together. Until then, Amy is actually pretty awful.

The episode's core plot is, by contrast, actually fairly good. There's a solid and intriguing reason for a family of carnivorous fish people to hide on 16th century Earth, and an equally solid reason why - when disguised as humans - they keep looking and acting like vampires.  Helen McCrory is impressive as the villainous Rosanna, madam of an exclusive school for young ladies but also the matriach of a species of malevolent fish people. Given how short the episode is on plot, it's down to McCrory and Matt Smith to give it its highlight: a verbal confrontation between Rosanna and the Doctor. She exudes a wonderful menace, and it's a shame she could be utilised for longer. Alex Price is also entertaining as her son Francesco: a Renaissance youth imagined as a sort of petulant britpop singer. Sadly the design of their alien forms isn't particularly convincing. The CGI used to create them is actually quite impressive, given the budget, but the design work behind just looks faintly ridiculous.

It all comes to an ominous end as well, with silence descending over Venice. Two elements to the season-long mystery - cracks in time, and "silence must fall" - and both crop up in wonderful fashions here. "The Vampires of Venice" isn't perfect, but it's a lot of fun. Six episodes into Season 5, and five episodes have been good. The quality ratio rises to 83 per cent.

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